Argentina and Italy, the previous two World Cup soccer champions, met today in this high, dry industrial city 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. They remain two of the world's best teams, separated by one element -- Diego Maradona.
The World Cup Group A match ended in a 1-1 tie, a standoff forged by Maradona's marvelous goal in the 33rd minute of the first half. Italy took a 1-0 lead in the seventh minute on Alessandro Altobelli's penalty kick, but after that, it was mostly Maradona the rest of the period.
Those fans looking for clues as to which of these clubs has the best chance of winning the 13th Cup need look no farther than the fact that Argentina has Maradona and Italy does not. In fact, this match marked a crossroads for two superstars headed in opposite directions -- Maradona and Italy's Paolo Rossi.
For the second straight match, Rossi, the star of Italy's 1982 World Cup triumph, was not activated. It appears more and more likely Rossi will be just a footnote in the Italians' 1986 Cup bid as Coach Enzo Bearzot has turned to Giuseppe Galderisi at center forward.
Four years ago in Spain, Italy rode Rossi's six goals to its third Cup title, and Argentina stumbled as Maradona was mediocre. But now, at 25, Maradona looks primed to stake a claim as the world's best player. Rossi, at 29, appears resigned to being formerly one of the world's top players.
"I don't have to prove anything to anybody," Rossi told reporters Wednesday.
More and more, Maradona seems to want this to be known as his World Cup. His play has been aggressive and creative. He has fought for the ball as if it were his property alone, and has taken constant punishment to his legs in consequence.
"Maradona is, at all times, an artist," said Argentina Coach Carlos Bilardo. "He is a player with skills like few others."
For a while today, it appeared that even Maradona's superlative talents would not be enough for Argentina. Puebla's Cuauhtemoc Stadium had been transformed into a Little Italy of sorts. There were three dozen Italian banners and a sizable Italian contingent. And since the Italian team has been training in Puebla, the locals were squarely behind the defending champions.
Italy gained its lead because Bruno Conti showed some dribbbling mastery in getting the ball to the right side of the goal area and Argentina's Jorge Burruchaga was cited for a controversial hand ball while defending him. The Argentines protested in vain, and Altobelli converted the penalty kick, putting it into the right side of the net as goalkeeper Nery Pumpido guessed wrong and dived the other way.
"I never speak about referees," Bilardo said of the penalty. "Don't expect me to give any opinion on referees."
After that, Maradona took over, although he often was frustrated by the presence of Italy's Salvatore Bagni, who is his teammate with Napoli in the Italian league. Bearzot had Bagni mark Maradona throughout. If Maradona went left, so did Bagni. If Maradona stopped and put his hands on his hips, so did Bagni. If Maradona had gotten an itch, Bagni probably would have scratched, too.
Maradona, however, finally shook free in the 34th minute after threatening several times earlier. Jorge Valdano, who scored two goals with Maradona's help in Argentina's 3-1 Cup-opening victory over South Korea, returned the favor today. From the right side of the goal, he lofted a crossing pass to a sprinting Maradona, who beat his defender and managed to softly kick the ball into the right side of the net from a poor left-side angle.
For the rest of the half, Argentina pressed the attack. Because of the high altitude here, Bearzot had stressed a short-passing game to conserve energy. But today, Italy did not even manage that very well. Its attackers labored against Argentina, making forward progress infrequently and clumsily.
In the second half, after missing on some early opportunities, Italy chose to play ultraconservatively, apparently willing to accept a draw for the second consecutive match. (Italy advanced to the second round of the 1982 Cup with three straight ties.) In the final 15 minutes, even the partisan crowd turned on Italy for its tactics.
"We did not play to tie," Bearzot said. "I think we were more tired in the second half than in the first. We created opportunities, but as against Bulgaria a 1-1 draw , it did not show on the scoreboard."
In other games today, European champion France and the Soviet Union also played to a 1-1 tie, as did South Korea and Bulgaria.
In Leon, Vassily Rats gave the Soviets a 1-0 lead at 53 minutes and Luis Fernandez tied it seven minutes later from 10 yards out.
In Mexico City, Kim Jong-boo scored with 22 minutes left to tie it for South Korea. Bulgaria had taken the lead in the 11th minute on a goal from Plamen Getov. The game was played in steady rain and, by the end, the field was a quagmire.